I first played Half-Life in 1998 and played it again recently for a series of livestreams on Twitch. It’s been 20 years since the game was released, and what I experienced so many years later made me reassess the game. It’s a chaotic, if sometimes sloppy, masterpiece.
This piece originally appeared 9/15/17. We’re bumping it today, with minor updates, for the game’s 20th anniversary.
Half-Life follows Gordon Freeman, a physicist who works at the Black Mesa Research Facility in New Mexico. The formative first person shooter pushed a genre known for shootouts into a paradigm that melded seamless story and great gunplay. The game opens with a tram ride into the complex. This intro subdued and helps players identify with Gordon. Then the shooting kicks in.
Half-Life both subverts and embraces first person shooter tropes from the 1990s. Gordon is deliberately not a space marine but a nerdy everyman. Levels are not just abstract corridors or puzzle boxes with keys to find; they are detailed approximations of real space. They’re office complexes, flooded basements, and cafeterias. Black Mesa feels like a place you might find in the real world. But Half-Life is also a natural extension of games like 1996’s Quake. Half-Life’s engine, GoldSrc, is a modified version of the Quake engine. The newer game’s various subversions are constructed into a sly gameplay package of circle-strafing a shotgun blasts.
Replaying Half-Life, it’s clear that the first third of the game is the most successful. Navigating through destroyed labs and offices offers a crash course in intelligent level design. Half-Life’s levels are complex mazes, but one of the game’s greatest tricks is making everything seem natural and navigable. . Early levels are jammed with enemies that have upset Black Mesa’s domesticity. Gordon battles the likes of small but damaging headcrabs and lightning-zapping vortigaunts. Encounters never feel unfair, as each enemy telegraphs their attacks nicely. Battles are wonderful combination of dodging and shooting.
Half-Life’s smartest decision is introducing military soldiers as enemies, slightly after players have grown accustomed to fighting aliens. These soldiers shift the gameplay remarkably. Preceding enemies had tells that allowed you to avoid attacks. The soldiers have hitscan weapons that damage the player instantly. They work together as a group to pressure the player. They will attempt pincer movements or toss grenades at players hiding in cover. This is common practice in games today. It was novel then but also still manages to be exciting. Half-Life’s soldiers provide such a dramatic change to how players handle gunfights that it alters the rest of the game. Their arrival in the chapter “We’ve Got Hostiles” is one of the most important and shocking moments in first person shooters. It impresses to this day.
Half-Life’s navigation puzzles mostly don’t hold up. They range from simple platforming segments to an elaborate sequence full of conveyor belts, fire, and smashing machinery. The game’s best environmental puzzle-solving comes early in “Blast Pit,” a mission that asks players to reconnect fuel lines so that they can incinerate a monster using a test rocket. Following this, numerous levels try different gimmicks that stumble. “On A Rail” is an awkward sequence that involves riding a tram and changing tracks to move through a maze. “Lambda Core” is packed with portals so insidiously disorientating that it almost kills all the game’s previously built up goodwill. These sequences figure heavy into the Half-Life’s second act, dragging the quality down with convoluted scenario design.
The last third of the game drops players into the alien dimension Xen, a bizarre world of fleshy growths and low gravity. Contrary to popular opinion that paints the game’s final segment as notoriously unbearable, Xen succeeds by taking away anything familiar. Enemies are tougher, navigation shifts to a focus on vertical movement up alien towers, and the mood is wonderfully hostile. While it is occasionally difficult to know your next step, Xen offers surprising battles and locations that help Half-Life rebound from its disappointing middle.
Xen’s weak point is the final boss. Taking down the massive Nihilanth is far too complicated and messy for an actual climax. The battle involves destroying crystals that protect the creature,while dodging enemies and portals that drop the player into punishing rooms. These spaces often contain mini-bosses or elaborate platforming puzzles that artificially extend the battle. What might have been a dramatic finale ends on a long, flat note, the final moments of the game marred by uncharacteristically outdated design. It is a boss fight that exists exclusively because there had to be a big boss fight.
Half-Life isn’t as consistently great as I remembered. The middle of the game is a twisting slog of hallways, puzzles, and gunfights that never quite mesh. But the first handful of levels are some of the best ever put into an FPS. It fizzles out slightly by the end but the imaginative level design and exciting shooting is still captivating 20 years later.